I became a writer the old fashioned way. In 1985 I embarked on a three-month trip to India, Nepal and Japan, after which I planned to return to the States to study architecture. Only, I didn’t return. I kept traveling for nearly two years, and eventually made my way around the world. Scaling the Himalayas, becoming deathly ill in India, crossing the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railway, working as a fisherman in Australia, an English teacher- actor in Japan, and a janitor in Paris, I kept a journal. This daily recording of experience eventually led me to a career in writing.
In 1988 I joined New York magazine as a fact-checker. I wrote many short articles there, and freelanced on the side, producing stories like “Slave,” a New Yorker piece about an irascible soup maven (later made famous by Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi”). In the 1990s I moved to BusinessMonth, where I profiled business leaders, to Time, where I covered national affairs, and to People, where I wrote crime stories. In 2001 I joined Talk magazine, where my article “Should Johnny Paul Penry Die?” — about the debate over executing mentally retarded criminals — was anthologized in The Best American Crime Writing.
In 2003 I co-wrote the book Forewarned, about terrorism and security in the post-9/11 world, with Michael Cherkasky (then-CEO of Kroll, now CEO of Exiger).
In 2002 Vanity Fair published my article “Investigating ImClone,” which was anthologized in Best Business Crime Writing. In 2004, I expanded that story into The Cell Game, a book about the intersection of biotech, celebrity, finance, and white-collar crime. The Cell Game was optioned for a movie that has yet to be made.
In 2004 I helped Julia Child write her memoir, My Life in France, about her “favorite years” — 1948-1954 — when she and her husband Paul lived in Paris and Marseille. (Paul was my grand uncle, my grandfather’s twin brother.) In France Julia experienced “a flowering of the soul” and discovered her raison d’etre in cooking. We worked together for eight months, until Julia died in her sleep two days shy of her 92d birthday. I spent another year finishing My Life in France, which Knopf published in 2006. The book reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. In 2009, it inspired half of Nora Ephron’s film “Julie & Julia,” which starred Meryl Streep. I consulted on the script, coached Stanley Tucci on playing Paul Child, and was an extra in the movie.
After that, I shifted my focus to other subjects, most notably the environment and energy, and wrote two books: The Ripple Effect: the Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011 by Scribner; and Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
In 2014, a decade after working on My Life in France, I circled back to answer a few questions about Julia that had tugged at my curiosity: what was it like for the Childs to retire from the Foreign Service in 1961, and settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts? How did Julia first appear on Public Television in 1963, win an Emmy in 1966, and land on the cover of Time in 1967? And what led her to the White House, the Queen of England, James Beard and Colonial food, to leave Public TV for Good Morning America, and to become America’s first true celebrity chef?
I thought these questions would form the basis for an article. Instead, they led me to uncover a hidden history of Julia in the 1970s — a dynamic period when she was in her sixties and “burst out of the straightjacket” of classical cuisine, parted ways with her French “sister” Simca Beck, rediscovered her roots, used recipes from around the world, and began to write in the first-person.
Julia reached the peak of her celebrity in the Seventies – epitomized by Dan Aykroyd’s famous “Save the Liver!” parody on Saturday Night Live in 1978 – while suffering some of her darkest moments in private – especially Paul’s botched heart-bypass operation and his decline into “the mental scrambles.”
Researching this era I discovered a trove of articles, scripts, documentary footage, correspondence, and notes about unpublicized or forgotten aspects of the Childs’ lives. Interviewing Julia’s colleagues, I learned how disciplined, hardworking and resilient she was, how deeply she loved her family and friends, the breadth of her culinary knowledge, the depth of her generosity, creativity, curiosity, and natural humor. “The idea,” she said, “was to take the bugaboo out of cooking.”
This left me with far too much material for an article. Figuring that others might be as inspired by Julia’s self-reinvention as I was, I wrote The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act. (I also narrated the audiobook.) The book is dedicated to Judith B. Jones, Julia’s lifelong editor, and Knopf published it in October 2016.
Looking ahead, I have two new projects underway.
The first is France is a Feast: Paul and Julia Child’s Photographic Journey, a book of Paul Child’s black-and-white photographs taken in France in 1948-1954. I have written the text and Katie Pratt has edited Paul’s evocative images. Thames & Hudson is scheduled to publish this book in October 2017.
The second book is The First Kitchen: a Culinary History of the White House, which traces the central role food has played in American political history, from George Washington and his slave-chef Hercules to the Obamas, and perhaps the Trumps. The First Kitchen was inspired by Julia’s televised visits to state dinners in 1967 (with President Johnson), and 1976 (with President Ford during the bicentennial). It will be published by Knopf.